Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: Conservative splits and sleaze spell Major doom for Rishi Sunak

Consider this take on former prime minister John Major’s beleaguered premiership, reportedly written as the 1997 general election results rolled in: “Nobody elects a divided party” or rewards “weak leadership, sleaze [and] a poorly run campaign”. In short, so bereft had the Conservative Party become of unity and purpose, John Major deserved to fail in his second shot at re-election. 

This assessment, scribbled for Winchester College’s school magazine, flowed from the pen of a sixteen-year-old Rishi Sunak. As the PM’s biographer Lord Ashcroft goes on to note, the analysis was remarkably sophisticated for a 16-year-old. I suppose you’ve already predicted my punchline: Sunak’s commentary here doubles as a damning description of the Conservative Party today, 27 years later and under his leadership. 

On Wednesday, now-independent MP Mark Menzies became the latest parliamentarian to face to astonishing “sleaze” allegations, courtesy of a bombshell newspaper report. The Times reported Menzies had demanded thousands of pounds from a septuagenarian aide in what he called “a matter of life and death”. Menzies disputes the allegations and says he has “fully complied with all the rules for declarations”. Still, he was suspended from the Conservative parliamentary party on Wednesday evening pending an investigation.

While the Conservative chief whip, Simon Hart, was reportedly told about the allegations at the start of January, the prevailing problem for the prime minister isn’t the substance of the scandal — but the surrounding context. Stories of “sleaze” within Conservative ranks are more and more a staple of the news cycle and, even if they do not implicate the prime minister, their effect is largely the same: a strengthened sense that the Tory party is in a state of decay. 

However, there is also no disguising the fact that Rishi Sunak inadvertently made matters worse upon becoming prime minister by pledging to lead an administration with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. This bold remark — an approach that consciously accepted popular critiques of his predecessors — was not meant to refer to the individual behaviour of backbench MPs. But its interpretation has long since bounced out of the PM’s control: never has a government so quickly made itself a hostage to fortune. 

Whatever bad news story runs the day in Westminster, recalling Sunak’s “back to basics”-esque promise is standard columnist practice. In fact, by so committing himself upon entering Downing Street, Sunak ensured that every following scandal would be interpreted as a probity “test” — doubly exposing his government and his party. It’s little wonder why the prime minister has hardly repeated the phrase since Nadhim Zahawi and Gavin Williamson were both bounced out of government under the cloud of scandal in late 2022/early 2023.

In recent months of course, the country has become well-accustomed to one potential consequence of alleged impropriety: a by-election and, in turn, a further reduction in the Conservatives’ commons majority. The coming contest in Blackpool South on 2 May, held in Scott Benton’s stead, follows similar by-elections in Wellingborough (Peter Bone), Tamworth (Chris Pincher), Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) and Somerton and Frome (David Warburton). And those are only the relevant contests held since Sunak’s elevation as prime minister in October 2022. 

Sunak faces fresh by-election headache after Scott Benton loses suspension appeal

Such by-elections, it is worth relaying, are a relatively new phenomenon — brought about by a confluence of cultural and quasi-constitutional factors. Most pressing in this regard has been the introduction of the Recall of MPs Act 2015, and the threat it poses to representatives accused of wrongdoing, many of whom have jumped before pushed. John Major’s Conservative Party, despite the maelstrom of sleaze, faced no such contests throughout the 1992-1997 parliament. Rather, from 1992-1997, 16 out of 18 total by-elections were a result of the death of the incumbent MP. (In total, eight Conservatives died — all of whom were replaced by an opposition successor).

Today, the impact the Conservative Party’s rolling by-election losses are having on the political landscape can hardly be overstated — both in terms of shaping rebel MP behaviour and the tone and tenor of political commentary. But as was the case of Major’s government, in lieu of any sleaze by-elections, the broader political effect of such stories is arguably more potent: these scandals are gnawing away at the Conservative Party, distracting from its core strategy and preventing the PM from focusing on practical governance. (Questions about Menzies, naturally, dominated the aftermath of Sunak’s “sick note culture” speech on Friday).

Crucially, like John Major (and unlike Boris Johnson), Sunak has suffered no legacy-shaping scandal of his own. But recurrent stories of Conservative sleaze befit a still broader narrative of the party’s Major-like malaise — which every week now is embellished by some new controversy or intra-party drama. 

Party discipline up in smoke

Indeed, sleaze aside, the vote this week on Rishi Sunak’s phased smoking ban provided our latest insight into the ideological splinters cracking Conservative politics. 

The prime minister granted a free vote on the measure, allowing both MPs and serving ministers to wander into the division lobby of their choice without fear of reprisal. The result was a mass revolt from MPs hailing from the “libertarian” wing of the party and encompassing Kemi Badenoch together with many in her inner circle. (In total, three of the five other dissenting ministers voted for Kemi Badenoch in the first Conservative leadership contest of 2022. Housing minister Lee Rowley was then Badenoch’s proposer and campaign manager; another smoking dissenter, culture minister Julia Lopez, served as her official seconder).

As far as Sunak is concerned, the smoking measure was announced as the centrepiece of his 2023 party conference speech — a few political resets ago. But even in October last year, as Sunak restyled himself as the “change candidate” for the election ahead, it was unclear where a phased smoking ban sat within his broader strategy — matters are even more muddled now.

The smoking vote on Tuesday also coincided with a wave of publicity for former prime minister Liz Truss, whose new book Ten Years to Save the West was published that morning. Again, the parallels with John Major are manifest; the former Conservative PM once remarked of his own deposed predecessor:

I found Margaret’s behaviour very puzzling. … she seemed to be actively persuading new and relatively impressionable MPs to vote against the government on policy issues. And many of her speeches abroad trickled back here with what could only have been construed as criticism of the government policy. … She was, if not actively encouraging, certainly looking in a very sunny fashion upon James Goldsmith [founder of the Referendum Party/ read Nigel Farage, whose birthday party Truss recently attended]

Major added: “In retrospect, I can now say, I think her behaviour was intolerable. And I hope none of my successors are ever treated that way by their predecessors, or indeed by anyone else”. One can see a post-premiership interview with Rishi Sunak proceeding along similar lines. 

In this way, a brutal dynamic now grips the Conservative Party, wherein Sunak’s inability to shift the dial as PM has left activists pining for other solutions — in turn softening Truss’ image. Her interventions have taken on greater significance, simply, because Sunak is himself castigated as lacking answers to the Conservatives’ electoral quandary.

The 1992-1997 John Major parallels do not stop there, however. In 1997, ahead of a much-foretold routing courtesy of Tony Blair, a full 75 Conservative MPs opted to leave parliament without contesting the coming election. Today, alongside the stories of sleaze and Conservative division, another recurring fixture of our politics is the drip-drip of Tories signalling to their local associations that they do not intend to stand for re-election. Tim Loughton became the latest and 64th Conservative MP to announce as much this week.

As the number of Tory departees creeps higher and higher, it only seems a matter of time before it surpasses — and eventually dwarfs — the 1997 Tory out-take. The media commentary that will follow, and the fatigued vibes such an exodus exudes, will strengthen the feeling of malaise that envelops Conservative politics. 

Another recent pressing and understated parallel is Lee Anderson’s defection to Reform UK — which resembles Major-critic George Gardiner’s decision to join the Referendum Party, one of Reform’s many right-of-Conservative forebears, in 1997. It all rolls into the same narrative of Tory division, decay and decline.

Tellingly perhaps, an Ipsos poll this week showed Rishi Sunak’s net satisfaction rating as level-pegging with Major — i.e the joint worst ever for a prime minister. The poll found that three-quarters of adults in the country are dissatisfied with the way the PM is conducting his affairs (up two points from February), with just 16 per cent satisfied (down three points). The net score of -59 matches Major in August 1994 — the lowest score Ipsos has ever recorded for a Conservative leader.

Rishi Sunak’s doom loop

As such, what would seem most striking when assessing the political landscape at this juncture, is that it is simply far easier to imagine things getting worse for Rishi Sunak — both in the short and long term — than getting better. 

Much will be read into the Conservative Party’s likely poor performance at the coming local elections, with Sunak’s rebels reportedly planning further skirmishes in the aftermath. In 1995, John Major’s government was eventually destabilised to such a degree that he decided to resign as Conservative leader and run for re-election to the post. Might Sunak, in a similar vein, declare the situation intolerable and launch his own “put up or shut up” gambit? 

In sum, we have approached the point in the political-electoral cycle where every story is interpreted through the prism of Conservative malaise. And with rolling stories of sleaze, infighting and much else besides, commentators need not complain of a shortage of material.

In turn, as each fin de régime episode is written up, the PM’s window for action gets smaller and path to victory narrower. John Major never managed to break his doom loop — the question now is whether Sunak faces a similar, or worse, fate. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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